Summary: Brandon puts Sapphire's new X800 XL product-line-refresher up against the X850XT PE, X800 256mb and X700. This PCI-Express card takes cues from the X850 line but can be had for much cheaper, achieving great sales. Check out how it performs right here!
While it isn’t the fastest card in NVIDIA’s GeForce 6 stable, since its inception the GeForce 6800 GT has arguably stirred the most excitement among gamers and hardware enthusiasts. As you probably know by now, the GeForce 6800 GT borrows all the same features found in NVIDIA’s flagship GeForce 6800 Ultra (including 16 pixel pipelines), only it ships with slightly slower clock speeds and it’s priced $100 cheaper.
This has made the 6800 GT a favorite among the performance crowd as well as the consumer who wants high-end features, but doesn’t want to pay the lofty price tag such a graphics card usually commands. When you factor in NVIDIA’s recent price cuts on the entire GeForce 6800 lineup, the 6800 GT looks even more enticing. As a result, NVIDIA has been able to take back much of the high-end DX9 share they lost during the NV3x generation of GPUs.
To combat this card, ATI concocted the RADEON X800 XL, borrowing a trick from NVIDIA’s playbook by integrating the same feature set as found in their high-end X850 line, right down to the 16 pixel pipes, only they have one key advantage over NVIDIA: their card is actually cheaper to produce.
Whereas the GeForce 6800 GT is produced on the same 0.13-micron manufacturing process NVIDIA uses for the GeForce 6800 Ultra, for X800 XL, ATI didn’t borrow the X850’s process, instead the chip is built on TSMC’s 0.11-micron process.
By using this smaller process, manufacturing costs are reduced, as ATI gets more X800 XL cores per silicon wafer, assuming equal yields. The only downside (for enthusiasts and overclockers at least) is that TSMC’s 0.11-micron process isn’t designed for high clock speeds, newer technologies such as low-k dielectric insulating material aren’t found at 0.11, instead the emphasis at 0.11 is on value.
This means that cards based on TSMC’s 0.11-micron process can’t scale to higher clock speeds like 0.13-micron X800/X850 cards can. This may or may not be a big deal to you, depending on your perspective concerning overclocking. X800 XL cards have been selling like hotcakes to this point, so this apparently hasn’t upset too many people.
With X800 XL cards selling so well, many card manufacturers have decided to refresh their X800 XL lineup; in our RADEON X800 XL roundup we noted that both MSI and Sapphire were hard at work designing enhanced X800 XL cards.
Sapphire’s RADEON X800 XL ULTIMATE Edition is the first of these second generation X800 XL cards and we recently received a board for testing. See how the card stacks up in this review.
SIDEBAR: A T-bone steak contains one portion of tenderloin and a smaller section of filet mignon on either side of the bone.
Reviving the ULTIMATE line
If you recall Sapphire’s previous ULTIMATE Edition cards, with the “ULTIMATE” brand, Sapphire aimed to deliver cards with silent cooling, or at least as close to silent as possible. Sapphire was actually the first ATI board partner to emphasize this, with their early ULTIMATE Edition cards cooled solely by Zalman heatpipe solutions; noisy fans had become a thing of the past.
Eventually Sapphire had to incorporate more traditional heatsink/fan cooling from Arctic Cooling, integrating their VGA Silencer 4 into the Sapphire TOXIC X800 PRO. Many figured Sapphire had severed their ties with Zalman after the TOXIC line was launched.
The ULTIMATE line and Sapphire’s relationship with Zalman lives on however, as the Sapphire X800 XL ULTIMATE uses Zalman’s VF700 unit to cool ATI’s X800 XL VPU.
Unlike previous ULTIMATE products, the Sapphire X800 XL ULTIMATE Edition differs in that it doesn’t rely on heatpipe cooling. The Zalman VF700 cooler that the card relies on instead is based on a heatsink/fan unit design, employing aluminum cooling for the heatsink unit’s fins.
The design of the cooler itself though is anything but conventional, with a heatsink shaped like a flower, with some of the longest fins we’ve ever seen on a graphics card heatsink, giving the cooler greater surface area and thus increasing its effectiveness. The fins are tightly crammed together for even better performance. The heatsink is then mated to a large, yet quiet 2-ball bearing fan, ensuring better longevity for the fan’s motor.
Zalman claims the whole system is so effective it not only cools the graphics core effectively, but the entire PCB of the graphics card itself as well. The only snag is that the cooler is so large it engulfs the PCI slot adjacent to the graphics card, but for most enthusiasts this isn’t a problem.
In operation, the ULTIMATE X800 XL isn’t silent, but at under 30 decibels, the card’s fan is pretty hard to hear under the noise of other system components such as the CPU and system chipset coolers, even in our open-air testing environment. Inside a system case you’d be hard-pressed to pick it out. Like all X800 XL cards, the fan operates dynamically, with the RPMs varying based on the VPU’s temperature. As the temperature increases, so do the RPMs. During our testing the fan never had to hit 100% to keep the card cool, but it would leave it’s slowest setting for an intermediate mode occasionally. But even at these levels the card barely registers at 30 decibels.
The rest of the ULTIMATE X800 XL’s board design is carried over strictly from Sapphire’s previous X800 XL card, including the board’s DVI/VGA output combination. Considering that the ULTIMATE line is targeted towards enthusiasts, we would have liked to have seen dual DVI outputs, but Sapphire chose not to implement them. The ULTIMATE X800 XL also lacks video input for VIVO (video-in/video-out) support. Perhaps these features will be included in a future TOXIC Edition X800 XL board? Sapphire’s stance going forward is that the ULTIMATE line will continue to emphasize quiet, near-silent operation, while the TOXIC boards will be targeted towards overclocking.
Hardware accessories bundled with the board include a DVI adapter, component video cable (for hooking the card up to an HDTV), as well as S-Video and Composite video cables. Software titles bundled with the card include the DVD-ROM version of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and PowerDVD 5 2-channel edition.
AMD Athlon 64 4000+
Pacific Fighters (kamikaze demo)
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Pacific Fighters - OpenGL
Far Cry – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Lack of dual DVI: